This is the story of a thirteen-year-old girl who should be at school, but instead is a ‘housewife’, after being sold off as a child bride to a sangoma. Child marriage plagues South Africa, yet the rights of minors still go unprotected in a staggering number of cases. Most notably, this one. By MANDY DE WAAL.
From Limpopo comes the alarming story of a 13-year-old who has been married off to a 57-year-old traditional healer, ostensibly to pay the sangoma’s bill. Frank Maponya, Sowetan’s bureau chief for the province, broke the story. He writes that the child is barely a teen, but has already been forced into a union with a man 44 years her senior.
The child was in Grade Six before she became a child bride. She was described by the principal of her school (Magene Primary School) as a “bright pupil who was doing well in class”. Now, instead of being a learner, the child is a ‘housewife’.
The child and the sangoma crossed each other’s paths a couple of years ago when the young girl got epilepsy. The girl’s mother, who cannot be named so as to protect the minor, said the girl would “faint at any time”. There was ongoing treatment for this epilepsy, and later for an “ancestral problem” – and the sangoma’s bills started piling up.
The mother didn’t have the funds to pay the sangoma, so the traditional healer offered to marry the girl. His reasoning was that this young girl could live close to him and he could attend to her ailments. Further, he said that the arrangement would settle the score of the bill. As a sweetener, the sangoma offered R5,000 ilibolo (lobola) which was subsequently given to the girl’s parent, a single mother of five children.
After hearing about the transaction and the fate of the child, police arrested the man. Mahwelereng police spokesman Captain Sebotsaro Motadi told Sowetan that the sangoma was due to face charges in court on Thursday 24 January 2013, but added that had been let go because the girl’s parent had consented to the marriage.
The sangoma confirmed to Sowetan that he had been let off the hook, saying: “There was no use of force in the marriage. It was a mutual agreement between both families.” He added that his culture allowed him to marry anyone over the age of 12. Needless to say, when the courts released the sangoma, he went home to his child bride.
Daily Maverick spoke to Mthunzi Mhaga, ministerial spokesperson for the Department of Justice, who nonetheless said he would prefer not to comment in any details as the matter was being investigated by the National Prosecuting Authority. “I am distressed to hear that the courts let the man go. If it is established that the man had sex with the girl, he would most certainly be facing a case of statutory rape,” Mhaga said.
A spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority said they wouldn’t comment because they were currently investigating the case, but added that they’d release a statement as soon as the investigation was done.
“For a man to treat a 10- or 11-year-old for a serious medical condition, and then two years later manipulate the parents into allowing his marriage to the child, is an indictment against South Africa and the NPA whose courts allowed the man to walk free,” said Dianne Kohler Barnard, Shadow Minister of Police for the DA. “First there is the issue of statutory rape, which falls under the Sexual Offences Act in that the child was under the age of 16. This terrifying situation wasn’t technically ‘ukuthwala’ as he didn’t kidnap the child, but, as a man old enough to be her grandfather, [he] convinced the parents to give her up willingly,” she said.
“Section 12 of the Children’s Act stipulates that a child below the minimum age set by law for a valid marriage may not be given out in marriage or engagement; and (b) above that minimum age may not be given out in marriage or engagement without his or her consent. So this also falls foul of the Children’s Act. Kidnapping, and the role the parents played in this dreadful situation, should also be considered. The Trafficking Act still sits for consideration with the NCOP, although it has been approved by the National Assembly”.
“It is now up to the NPA to explain how a South African Court allowed parental consent to overrule the laws of the land, and what steps will be taken to deal with this matter and those responsible for taking this decision in court. Our children and their protection should be one of our prime focuses, yet time and again it seems the value of their health, happiness and well-being evaporates like mist in the sun when other ‘more pressing’ issues face the current government,” Kohler Barnard said.
Data from Unicef shows that a third of women between the ages of 20 to 24 were married as children, but that this problem is most prevalent in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, Unicef’s numbers for 2012 show that 1% of girls married before the age of fifteen, and 6% before the age of eighteen.
Girls Not Brides, the global partnership to end child marriage, says the outlook for girls who marry as children is painfully bleak. “Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/Aids and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty,” reads the Girls Not Brides statement.
Child brides, like the young girl in Limpopo, are mostly forced to drop out of school, and a lack of education traps them in a cycle of poverty because they are denied the same economic opportunities as their peers. Research by Girls Not Brides shows that for each year that a girl child stays in school, her opportunity for being healthier and wealthier (in relative terms) increases.
The justice system has already failed this 13-year-old girl once, as it has many other girls before her. One can only shudder at the thought of how many fates like hers are out there, unreported, untouched. DM
Photo via Girls Not Brides, from the video ‘Girls Not Brides: Traditions can change – ending child marriage’.
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